Back pain. It’s a friend who’s accompanied me through most of my life, beginning in my early teens and really intensifying during graduate school when I had an “emergency surgery” after losing muscular control of my right foot. In 2006, when I had this surgery, I experienced intense pain: burning sensations that radiated from my low back down my right leg and into the toes that I couldn’t lift. It was a scary experience.
The last decade has taken me on an unexpected journey though understanding, managing, and healing chronic pain. Early on, I tried allopathic medicine: from pharmaceuticals that left me nauseous to injections that increased my stress and, therefore, my pain. I consulted specialists, worked closely with physical therapists and counselors, and even attended “back school” through a local pain clinic. And after a LOT of trial-and-error and a LOT of searching, I found my way to more integrative, holistic, spiritual means of healing.
This journey underlies why I so deeply value embodied knowledge and believe that our bodies have much to teach us. It’s also why I see a commitment to justice aligning with a commitment to healing—healing that involves not only the physical body but also internalized inferiority and superiority, dehumanization, and systemic oppression.
This journey has also been shaped by my embodied positioning within the United States, where economic privilege allows me access to holistic therapies that draw from many lineages and knowledge systems. My embodied positioning has meant, too, some really awful interactions with physicians (especially white men), which linked physical pain with emotional trauma and disempowerment. Instead of unpacking embodiment—the focus of many blog posts (and many more stories to tell)—I want to think now about managing moments of acute or especially intense pain.
Every few months, a friend asks for recommendations for pain management. I share my experiences not as a healthcare provider (I’m not!) but as someone who’s negotiated pain that has truly laid me low.
Here’s what I’ve turned to time and time again, doing many of these at once, depending on the degree and type of pain:
- Sleeping with a pillow between or under my knees.
- Sitting on an exercise ball or with cushions, a lumbar roll, and heating pad. Also, standing, lying down, moving throughout the day, and limiting time sitting.
- Soaking in warm Epsom salt baths and gently floating/swimming in pools.
- Applying essential oils and balms to the primary site of pain and wherever nerve pain is radiating.
- Applying castor oil and a heating pad over the site of pain.
- Using a TENS unit, which took me several years to learn about, but has become a real lifesaver whenever sitting for several hours (e.g., when traveling by car or airplane).
- Receiving acupuncture and cupping, and consulting my acupuncturist about which herbs may help. I tend to take just a low dose of turmeric, as my stomach is sensitive, but my acupuncturist always has suggestions.
- Taking homeopathic tabs and/or applying homeopathic rubs, such as Rhus tox and arnica. I particularly like Community Pharmacy’s homeopathic blend “Injury,” and they ship across the United States. Community Pharmacy also has knowledgeable staff who can make recommendations for other integrative therapies, and they make customized flower essence blends, which can be combined with homeopathy.
- Becoming way more mindful about my eating, and sticking with an anti-inflammatory diet. It’s taken me YEARS of working closely with a naturopath to learn which foods increase my inflammation, so I recognize this is a long-term investment.
- Increasing my intake of potassium and magnesium through bananas, avocados, and coconut water toward calming muscles and my nervous system.
- Minimizing activities that create flare-ups: for me, these include driving and attending meetings.
- Increasing activities that support the body: examples include slow walking and gentle yoga (the sort where I’m lying on the floor for asana practice).
- Adding essential oils for relaxation to my pillow and dehumidifier at bedtime.
- Meditating, especially with Deb Shapiro’s “talking with your body,” body scans, and chakra meditations, which I now couple with self-Reiki.
- Repeating mantras suggested through Louise Hay’s Heal Your Body A-Z app. Some regular ones include: “I love and approve of myself. I trust the process of life. I flow freely with life.”
- Reviewing and integrating into my daily routines the movements suggested in Pete Egoscue’s Pain Free—building strength slowly and only after the most acute pain passes.
- Working out sensitive and sore spots with a foam roller—essentially, giving myself a massage.
- Noticing which of these therapies feels right at a given moment, and remaining open to other therapies, as there’s always more to try and learn. At times, massage or craniosacral therapy has felt right; at other times, I’m talked about stressors with friends or returned to physical therapy. It feels important to remain open to what healing is needed and how healing evolves over time.
- And if the pain is really bad, then taking ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or other pain relievers.
Managing back pain has meant befriending pain. Instead of cursing it, I’ve learned to get curious and ask, “Pain, what do you have to tell me?” Often enough, pain acts as a messenger, asking me to notice what I’ve been avoiding/hiding or to make changes that involve confronting fear, anger, and other emotions. Truly, in Deb Shapiro’s words: “Your Body Speaks Your Mind.”
I’ve only come to this place of befriending pain after embarking in 2011 on a process of self- and spiritual-discovery with Reiki. With the willingness to undo years of trauma to my body—from the surgery, taking medications to numb/dull the pain, and storing emotions as physical tension and rigidity—I’ve learned that pain is part of the heart-head-hands connection. As a friend, pain has ushered in daily yoga practice, a commitment to live a more contemplative and justice-oriented life, and the realization that I really love being in (feeling, experiencing, and moving) my body. From a place of gratitude, I can now say—12 years after back surgery—that I’m deeply grateful for the pain and its reminders to show up as I am: messy, human, and truly me.
From this place of gratitude, I hope that sharing what’s worked for me—how I respond to acute pain and what I’m learning through my healing journey—offers some insights or ideas for others facing pain. With love, may you/I/we heal ourselves and our world.
This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Attending to Anger,” “Gentle Yoga for Healing,” or “Playing Through the Pain.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!